‘He’s always going to rag on you’: NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace on driving for Michael Jordan

Jordan is a co-owner of 23XI Racing, which will have a pair of drivers — Wallace and Tyler Reddick — in Sunday’s Grant Park 220 downtown street race.

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NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 - Qualifying

Michael Jordan, co-owner of 23XI Racing, watches qualifying at Nashville Superspeedway on June 24, 2023.

Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

What’s it like to drive for Michael Jordan?

“He’s always just giving you jabs,” Bubba Wallace said, “checking your confidence and making sure it’s in check. And that’s super important. But he’s always going to rag on you about something, so you’ve got to be ready for it.”

Gosh, wherever have we heard such observations about Jordan before?

Jordan is a co-owner, along with Denny Hamlin, of 23XI Racing, which will have a pair of drivers — Wallace, in the No. 23 Toyota, and Tyler Reddick, in the No. 45 Toyota — in Sunday’s Grant Park 220 downtown street race. Hamlin, a minority partner, drives the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Think about it: 23 plus 11 equals 23XI, right? Perhaps you’d figured it out already.

Starting long before his time with the Bulls, Jordan was a fan of auto racing. His NASCAR team began competing in the 2021 season, with Wallace — the Cup Series’ only Black full-time driver — behind the wheel of the race car bearing the most famous number in basketball.

“I’ve learned there are a lot of people that are rooting for the 23 car out there across the globe, and that’s really, really cool,” Wallace said. “So to be here in Chicago, where I know 23 has a massive significance, it’s just cool to be carrying the number and the colors and everything else about it.”

Was Wallace a bit star-struck when first getting to know Jordan? Was it an intimidating experience? Those jabs can sting, you know.

“It’s always cool, it’s always special, right?” he said. “If I was in your shoes, I’d be really, really excited to be hanging out with him. For me, I think I had that moment the first time I met him, in Daytona [Fla.] two years ago, but then after that it’s just another guy. He’s just another guy. He’s got his posse, his group with him, but he’s so down to earth and fun to talk to.”

Wallace, still searching for his first checkered flag of the year, ranks 15th in the Cup Series points standings. Reddick, who won the March race in Austin, Texas, ranks 13th. The top 16 drivers qualify for the Cup playoffs, which begin in September.

NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace smiles after driving around the city in July 2022, shortly after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that there will be three years of NASCAR races along the lake in downtown Chicago, with the first set for July 2, 2023. The 2.2-mile showcase represents the first street course race in NASCAR’s 75-year history.

NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace smiles after driving around the city in July 2022, shortly after Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that there will be three years of NASCAR races along the lake in downtown Chicago, with the first set for July 2, 2023. The 2.2-mile showcase represents the first street course race in NASCAR’s 75-year history.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Chaos corner

That would be Turn 4 of the street course, otherwise known as Lake Shore Drive and Roosevelt Road.

It could get a little nutty in Saturday’s Xfinity Series Loop 121 race, and again with the heavy hitters on Sunday, when cars speed southbound on the Outer Drive into — and out of — that right turn. Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. expects it to be the most chaotic part of the course.

“We’re coming so fast down Lake Shore — say, 150 to 160 mph — and then our braking zone for Turn 4 is pretty rough,” he said. “It’s got some character, it’s got some bumps, and it’s really wide, but then it funnels down to a really narrow entrance from Turn 4 to Turn 5 [at Roosevelt and Columbus Drive] and so that whole thing will be kind of a tricky spot. It’s like a big funnel, almost, and then you get down and you go through this little chute. So it’ll be interesting. I think that spot is going to be probably the toughest to navigate.”

By the way, what’s so hot about winning at Daytona? Chicago is way cooler, right?

“Chicago would be prestigious,” Stenhouse said. “Maybe not taking over the Daytona 500, but it would be up there.”

Very diplomatic.

Names to know

We’d love to tell you who’s going to win the 55-lap Loop 121 on Saturday, but we’d have just as much business telling you what you’re going to eat for breakfast. (That would be two eggs, a piece of rye toast and a handful of blueberries. You’re welcome.)

But here are the top five drivers, in order, in the Xfinity Series points standings, and the numbers of their race cars: John Hunter Nemecheck (20), Austin Hill (21), Justin Allgaier (7), Cole Custer (00) and Josh Berry (8).

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